For well over a decade, Cubberley Community Center has stood out as Palo Alto's shining example of both untapped potential and bureaucratic sclerosis.
Sprawling, dilapidated and cherished by residents and city leaders for its mix of athletic, educational and recreational amenities, the Middlefield Road facility has been subject to extensive debate for well over a decade about needed repairs and new amenities. These efforts have been hampered by high costs and competing visions about Cubberley's future between the Palo Alto Unified School District, which owns 27 of Cubberley's 35 acres, and the city, which owns the other eight.
Now, with both the City Council and the school board each preparing to welcome new members after the November election, talks of reviving Cubberley are back in the spotlight. Most council candidates said in recent forums and interviews that they support rebuilding Cubberley and adding new amenities, including housing, to the community center. And several school board candidates suggested last week that they would like to remove one key barrier to redevelopment: a school district decision last year to preserve 20 acres at Cubberley for a future high school.
Several members running for the school board, including incumbent Shounak Dharap and candidate Nicole Chiu-Wang, said at a forum on Cubberley last week that they don't believe the district needs to preserve space for a third high school space and that it should work with the city to add community facilities.
Chiu-Wang pointed to the district's declining enrollment, which dropped by about 2,000 students between 2015 and last fall, and the broader trend of declining birthrates and posited that Palo Alto will not need a third high school for at least the next decade. The plan for Cubberley, she argued, should include housing, a wellness center, an art center and spaces for local nonprofits.
"We cannot be land hoarders," Chiu-Wang said at a Sep. 14 forum hosted by the group Friends of Cubberley. "Land is precious here."
For the school district, scrapping plans for a third high school and partnering with the city on Cubberley's redevelopment would mark a significant policy shift. In 2019, the city and the Palo Alto Unified School District funded a master plan for the center, which culminated in a new vision for Cubberley that included a wellness center, performance spaces, art studios and other gathering spaces.
But after initial fanfare, plans to advance this vision quickly fizzled as the Palo Alto Unified School District declared it has no intention of demolishing the existing gym. District officials also announced last October their decision to preserve about 20 acres for a potential third high school.
While the board can always reconsider this policy, Superintendent Don Austin told the Weekly that the preservation of land for a high school remains the district's position.
"That is still the policy guiding us," Austin said.
Dharap, who had served as board president during the Cubberley debate and who sat on a subcommittee dedicated to the project, said he was optimistic about how the policy has evolved over the past year. One factor that the city and the school district are exploring is a land swap that would give the city more Cubberley space for a potential redevelopment in exchange for land elsewhere in the city.
One possibility that city officials have discussed is Terman Park, a city-owned site next to Fletcher Middle School. Dharap said he would be interested in exploring a land swap. Like Wang-Chiu, he argued that the district does not need to preserve land for a new high school.
"The idea that we need a comprehensive high school is frankly not one grounded in reality right now," Dharap said.
Shana Segal, who is running for a school board seat, also said she is open to the land swap so that the city can have more space to redevelop at Cubberley. She also pointed to Palo Alto's plans to add more than 6,000 dwellings in the next eight years and argued that the district needs to preserve some space for a future school.
"I'm also wanting to preserve our school land to make sure we're looking forward to having a future school there as with more housing we'll have more families," Segal said at the Sept. 14 forum. (The fourth school board candidate, Ingrid Campos, was unable to attend the forum.)
On the council side, most of the candidates who attended the forum agreed that it's time to think big and to act fast. Vicki Veenker, a council candidate, said her biggest fear when it comes to Cubberley is inaction.
"I'm concerned we're going to pay maintenance costs instead of paying to enhance it," Veenker said. "I'd rather put money toward that, to making it realize its full potential."
Julie Lythcott-Haims, who is running for council, called the city's Cubberley debate "emblematic of the gridlock we're seeing in leadership." She said at the forum she supports a plan for Cubberley that includes a mix of uses, including housing, as well as nonprofits, a gym and a café. The goal is to turn Cubberley into a true community center where people can feel like they're neither at work or at school but in a "true destination you can go to and feel a sense of belonging."
Others also supported building housing at Cubberley, a proposal that was introduced late in the 2019 planning process and that encountered significant community pushback. Council candidate Brian Hamachek said at the forum he would support having a affordable housing for teachers at Cubberley, though he said in an interview later that he would reconsider that position if the neighboring communities object to the idea. Alex Comsa, who is also running for council, identified Cubberley as one of the areas in Palo Alto where the city can build significant housing.
"We can be looking at a mixed-use project where we can have whatever is in place now and multi-family units on top," Comsa said.
Lisa Forssell did not attend the Cubberley forum because she serves on the Utilities Advisory Commission, which met at the same time as the event. She said at a candidate forum sponsored by the Weekly that she also would like to see an addition of affordable housing and a conversion of Cubberley into a "vibrant community space."
"It's a great space, we should make it sing," Forssell said.
Others are more cautious when it comes to Cubberley's future. Ed Lauing and Doria Summa, who both serve on the Planning and Transportation Commission and who are running for council, both said they would like to prioritize preserving what's at Cubberley now. Neither attended the Cubberley forum because their commission also met that day. Each, however, said in interviews that they supported a more limited improvement plan for Cubberley, which may not include housing.
Summa said she doesn't support building housing at Cubberley at this time. Even though the center is "a little rundown and shabby," the goal should be to preserve what's already there, she said.
"We have to keep that community center available for all the nonprofits, individual art studios, for everything that goes on there," Summa told the Weekly in an interview.
Lauing similarly said that while Cubberley could use some repairs, it doesn't need a full-scale reconstruction or an addition of housing. He said he recently visited the center and saw many people enjoying the facility's nonprofit spaces.
"The vibe out there is just wonderful," he said.
Lauing, who worked on a working group that helped come up with a plan to meet state mandates to build 6,086 new dwellings by 2031, also noted that the proposed Housing Element that the group helped put together did not include any Cubberley housing.
"I don't think it needs to be turned into the Taj Mahal. It just needs to be refurbished and functional so nonprofits can stay," Lauing said.